Location: Toronto-Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit Metropolis, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies
“Take care of yourself.” She saw Coop hesitate before leaning in for a final kiss. It wasn’t as passionate as the ones from the previous night. There was a finality to this one. It was a goodbye kiss.
Deep down Hailey Marshall knew she would never see Mark Cooper again. He was going off to be a space marine like in the holos. He’d fight the evil Eastern Block across the galaxy, maybe get lucky and live to retirement, but most likely, he’d die on some shithole, partially-terraformed world. She didn’t want that for Coop. Not after all they’d been through together.
Coop wasn’t her boyfriend. That was just a term that corporations wrote on greeting cards and put in holos to moisten tween’s panties in the burbs. Hailey knew it was all bullshit. Coop was a friend who happened to be a boy. He protected her from the dumber assholes who tried to grab her ass or do worse, and she protected him from the whores whose snatch would rot his dick off, or wanted him to put a baby in them so they could get the extra BSA calories. It was a fucked up world, but they made a great team as they trudged through all the shit. They looked out for each other. Sure, the sex was awesome, but that was the cherry on top, not the cake.
Coop pulled away from the kiss, turned, and walked away without looking back. She tried to will the tears away, but they came anyway. She worried about him. Coop knew his way around the PHA, but the outside world was a whole different beast. She knew he was going to fall flat on his face like a newborn baby trying to walk for the first time, and he was stubborn enough to keep falling on his face until he couldn’t get back up. She admired that persistence. She just hoped it didn’t get him killed.
More important than her worry for Coop, was the unknown of what her own future held. She spun the six shooter in her hand, counted the three homemade rounds for the fifth time, and then snapped it closed. It made a satisfying click, and she stuck the gun in the back of her pants. The cold steel sent a comforting shiver up her spine. That was about the only good thing she had going for her. Coop might have talked to Jimmy up on eighteen, but Jimmy was a pussy. He’d fold the first time someone stuck a blade in his face.
She heard something mumbled through the thin polyplast wall. Coop was giving the final finger to his dad. That was something she regretted she couldn’t fix. Walter Cooper was a complicated man. He’d abandoned his son to secure their tower from the roving gangs, cartels, cops, and other insidious institutions that battled for control of the PHA streets. Coop never realized how lucky he had it living in a protected tower.
A dark memory rose to the surface. It was the middle of the night, and she awoke when a loud bang echoed through her apartment. She was only six, but she knew what the bang and vibration of her door getting kicked open felt like. She didn’t see her father rush out of the room, but she heard the stranger yell at him. Her father always told her to hide under the bed if she heard yelling, so that’s what she did. Someone else yelled, and then Hailey’s door was thrown open. Her mother rushed in with a look of terror on her face.
She opened her mouth to yell something, but then her body jerked spastically, her eyes rolled into the back of her head, and she collapsed to the floor. She hit hard without trying to stop her fall. A new shadow fell across the room, highlighted by the moonlight coming in from the window in the hall. She didn’t see who it was, but she’d never forget the smell on the person. It was body odor mixed with some toxic chemical concoction. It made her want to vomit, but she forced herself to swallow. If she gagged, it would only alert the attacker to her presence. She stared into her mom’s unconscious face before someone grabbed the unconscious woman’s leg and dragged her from the room.
Hailey was too young to know what happened next, but when she was old enough to figure it out, she wanted to hunt down those fuckers and cut their balls off. It was the least they deserved. Coop had never had to deal with the constant fear of being attacked during the night, raped, and he had his dad to thank for that.
The door slammed, and Walter’s laugh, brought Hailey back to reality. <He’s gone.> She took a deep breath, wiped away her tears, and put all the memories of her former friend, co-conspirator, and lover in a box in the back of her mind. She sealed it tight, placed it right beside the memory of the home invasion, and locked it all away.
<Suck it up,> she told herself before heading out of Coop’s barren room and into the rest of the apartment. Like Coop, she doubted she’d be here again any time soon.
Walter stood in the hallway staring at the closed front door. He looked so much like Coop had only thirty seconds ago, when Coop hesitated before the goodbye kiss, that she had to stifle a smile. Walter sensed her presence and turned to her, smothering the emotion on his face.
“He told me to look after you or he’d cut my balls off,” Walter shrugged as he returned to his chair in front of the family room’s holoscreen.
“I can take care of myself,” she replied defiantly.
“Sure you can.” Walter waved over his shoulder nonchalantly. She wasn’t sure if he agreed with her, or was mocking her. “But do me a favor and go see Jimmy. If you don’t, he’ll bug the shit out of me.”
She rolled her eyes, but agreed. Despite Walter and Coop’s complicated relationship, she’d always gotten along just fine with him. Plus, any favor she could call in was worth its weight in gold. Despite her boast, without Coop watching her back she felt more vulnerable than she had in years.
That reality became even clearer as she rode the elevator up to the eighteenth floor. Men watched her out of the corner of their eyes. Hailey knew she looked good for a PHA Rat, and tried to keep it that way. She was too skinny, but who wasn’t in the PHA. She meticulously maintained her platinum blonde cornrows. Not only did it give her a more exotic look, but it didn’t let bitches tear out chunks of her hair if she got in a brawl. Usually that didn’t matter because she was fast and knew how to fight, but now wasn’t a time to take chances. She kept her hand behind her back and on the handle of the pistol until she reached her floor. She disembarked without incident.
She breathed a sigh of relief in from her mask as she walked to Jimmy’s apartment. <Coop is gone for ten minutes and I’m already paranoid.> Experience told her paranoia kept people alive.
She knocked loudly on Jimmy’s door. Coop’s big friend must have been waiting just inside, because the seal’s deactivated with a hiss, and a rush of fresh air escaped as he immediately opened up. Hailey hurried inside, but not because she wanted to be with the big man, but because she didn’t want to waste the good air. Clean air was expensive in the PHA.
“Uh…hey, Hailey.” Jimmy was ten centimeters taller, and ten kilos heavier, than Coop. He tried to lean casually against the door frame, but misjudged the distance. He stumbled when his elbow slipped off the lip of metal and clanged into the door with a dull thud. He tried to hide the pain as it shot up and down his arm, but failed miserably.
Hailey tried really hard not to roll her eyes. “Just because Coop wanted you to look out for me doesn’t mean I need your help!” she spat. Her emotions were still raw from Coop’s goodbye, her flashback, and the short conversation with Walter. “I can take care of myself, so don’t try anything. I’m not some slut who’s going to fawn all over you because you’re a big, strong man. Don’t expect me to suck or fuck you. If you do, I’ll make you less of a man if you know what I mean.”
Jimmy gulped as he reached up and adjusted his glasses. “Yeah…no…I mean yes…I mean, I know you can handle yourself. I’ve just got your back.” He held up his hands in a placating gesture.
<That’s what I’m afraid of.> Hailey could see it in the way Jimmy held himself, the way his eyes widened when someone started yelling, or his clumsiness when she first entered. He was a soft soul.
There wasn’t anything wrong with that, and maybe in another life it would have been a good thing, but this was the PHA, and an attitude like that could get you killed. <Still, if it comes down to it. It’s better to have two bodies instead of one, and even better when that second body can’t run as fast as me. At the very least he’ll provide a distraction while I escape.> Hailey didn’t feel nearly as bad about that thought as she should have. Unlike Jimmy, her soul was cold and full of scars.
2 Month’s later
<Stupid, Hailey…stupid…stupid!> Her breath came in staggered waves as she sprinted down the deserted street. Or at least they seemed deserted.
It all started with a stroke of good fortune. Jimmy was walking Hailey back from getting their weekly BSA rations. They’d been casually living together for a couple of months. Jimmy might be a pussy, but he was a good roommate. She could feel his eyes linger on her a moment too long, and she could immediately tell when the poor guy had blue balls, but to his credit, he hadn’t tried anything. He was actually a nice guy. She should have listened to him.
They took a shortcut on the way home. It was an uncharacteristically sunny day. The cold and shadows had been driven back for the moment and with it some of the gangs. She knew for a fact the concealed hole in the side of the abandoned building was rarely used, and apparently, someone had the same idea as her. The air duct was big enough that she could walk in hunched over, and with the light piercing in through the rusted-through metal, she could see clearly down its length. The bundle in a brown duffle bag wasn’t something you saw in abandoned air duct every day, especially when it was filled with high-grade pharmaceuticals.
Jimmy said to leave it, but she didn’t listen. She wanted to live on something other than scraps. She wanted to take a shower with actual water instead of scalding air. She wanted to take a ride in an air-car instead of crawling through an abandoned building’s HVAC system.
Her wants got the best of her. She should have known it was a dead drop for some powerful people. Selling stolen merchandise, especially when she didn’t know who it’d been stolen from, wasn’t her strong suit. Just like avoiding an ambush when trying to sell the merchandise wasn’t Jimmy’s.
Hailey’s old, horrible thoughts about him being nothing but a sack of meat that facilitated her escape became a reality. Neither of them had heard or seen the woman that emerged from the shadows of the meeting location. The first indication Hailey had that something was happening was when the tip of a blade erupted from Jimmy’s chest, and his head exploded in a mess of bone, blood, and brains. It hadn’t been necessary to shoot Jimmy in the head after impaling him, but whoever this was decided to send a message. Hailey didn’t wait around to see what the assassin had in store for her.
Hailey’s legs burned with lactic acid as she fled. <There!> She spotted an alley, and took the ninety-degree turn at full speed. She ricocheted off the far wall with her bare shoulder, scraped a few layers of skin off, which drew a steady trickle of blood. She’d feel it tomorrow, but she ignored the pain. There would be no more tomorrow if the assassin caught her.
She didn’t stop to listen for the assassin’s approach. She hadn’t heard her before when she’d been paying attention. So Hailey doubted she would hear her now with her heart pounding like a bass drum in her ears. She ran down the alley and didn’t look back. The building on her right was partially collapsed. This was an abandoned factory district, back from when Buffalo’s economic fortunes had turned around in the early twenty-first century. Now, it was a dilapidated wasteland, but it was a great place to hide.
The alley ahead of her came to an abrupt end. A sheet-metal wall of the factory on the right had collapsed. Jagged metal barred her way, except for a small opening near the bottom. Hailey didn’t even slow down as she doze forward into the small hole. She felt the sharp edges cut into her clothes and flesh, but she scrambled forward. She sliced the palms of her hands and scuffed up her knees as she crawled. After fifteen meters, she emerged out of the other side safe and alive…for now.
<I need to get home!> she thought frantically, as she pressed her bleeding hands into her shirt.
She took a cautious look over her shoulder and found nothing. She turned back around and expected to see the assassin standing right in front of her with a pistol pointed between her eyes, and a blade ready to plunge into her heart…but again she saw nothing.
<Maybe this was my lucky break, not the duffle bag.> There were tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of narcotics in that bag, and she hadn’t given it a second thought when she fled. Someone clearly wanted the drugs more than her, and she was fine with that.
She looked around to gauge her position and knew she was lost, so she pointed herself east and started walking. It was nearly dark by the time she came within sight of her tower. It was that ominous time between light and dark when the real evil started to emerge. That’s how her momma always described it. In reality, the cops were undergoing a shift change so there were fewer of them on the streets. With the light going down, and the resulting diminished visibility, those with nefarious evening plans were getting prepared. Those people who just wanted to live their lives were busy getting inside before the second group got their act together and the first group came back out in force. What that left were quiet but mean streets, and it wasn’t somewhere that an attractive, wounded woman wanted to be.
<Almost there.> Hailey had been motivating herself for hours as she navigated the familiar and unfamiliar portions of the PHA. She was tired, hungry, frazzled, and she just wanted to get home. Although, Jimmy’s apartment wasn’t going to be home.
The cops might have not found the body yet, but if they did, the access code to his apartment would be suspended pending an investigation that would ultimately lead to someone new taking the room. That left Hailey homeless. She couldn’t go back to her parents. Mom was a junky and dad was in jail last time she checked, which only left one real option.
Walter Cooper said he’d keep an eye on her. It was time to see if that leant itself to the hospitality of his home now that Coop was off doing whatever. If he did, that was great. If not, at least she was still in the tower and had twenty-four hours to figure out her next move.
She came to the intersection a block away from the tower and stopped. She pressed herself close to the wall and looked around the corner. She saw nothing. It looked safe to cross, but she still gave it a minute. If someone had been tracking her they could have timed her crossing the intersection. Waiting a minute was going to throw that off and reveal them.
She waited sixty seconds and nothing happened. At a sprint she ran across the intersection half expecting gunfire to cut her down. The assassin was still out there. Just because Hailey couldn’t see her didn’t mean she wasn’t lurking.
Nothing reached out to end her life, and Hailey slammed into a wall on the other side. Her heart threatened to beat out of her chest, and her blood sounded like Niagara Falls in her ears. <But I’m almost there.> She could see the outline of the guards protecting the entrance to the tower. They had weapons slung and eyes scanning the area. Soon they’d see her coming, and if she was lucky, recognize her and come to help. She just needed to get closer.
She took a few steps forward and then everything went black. It was like someone had pulled something down over her eyes. Something synched tight around her neck, <That’s exactly what happened!> Panic flooded her mind, but she resisted it. She knew exactly what was happening.
They were called Black Hats. Hailey didn’t know how they got the name. It could have been that at some point they wore black hats, but it was probably a reference to the black bags they put over their victims’ heads. Bags that were filled with powerful sedatives, which was why she clamped her mouth closed and threw a vicious elbow in the direction she thought the man was. She aimed low.
There was a grunt as her elbow made contact with flesh. She knew she’d hit her target, because she could feel the person’s legs with her elbow and tricep, but it didn’t result in the satisfying scream a man gave when you hit him in the nuts.
<They aren’t all men?> She tried to control her fear, but it surprised her.
Black Hats were the middle men to the various criminal enterprises that recruited in the PHA. By “recruitment” she meant kidnapping and selling into slavery. You’d think slavery would be gone in the 25th century, but you’d be wrong. It wasn’t based on race or any of the other traditional factors. It was about the strong using the weak to do shit they didn’t want to do themselves, or have to pay others to do. There was no better place to get slaves than from a place no one would miss them, and where the cops wouldn’t really investigate.
Hailey always thought of it as a man’s job, since the sex trade was the big draw for PHA girls, but apparently women participated as well.
Hailey’s lungs started to burn as she continued to throw elbows at her attackers. She figured out it was plural when the bag around her neck tightened after she’d hit the black hatter right in the snatch. She lashed out with her feet and hit nothing. She reached behind her to claw at the person’s eyes, but they deftly avoided her. She struggled with everything she had, but she couldn’t do the thing that would have helped her the most…screamed.
A fist slammed into her gut like a battering ram and forced the last trickle of air from her lungs. Hailey’s body didn’t have a choice but to involuntarily respond. She gulped in a big helping of air, and felt the drugs hit her body immediately. Her limbs went limp, and all the struggle went out of her.
Even her thoughts became fuzzy and incoherent. <Fuuuuuuck,> was that last thing she could think before the pseudo darkness of the hood became the blackness of unconsciousness.